us how it will be with letters, with literature and books a
hundred years hence!"
books you are to be understood as referring to our innumerable
collections of paper, printed, sewed, and bound in a cover
announcing the title of the work, I own to you frankly that
I do not believe (and the progress of electricity and modern
mechanism forbids me to believe) that Gutenberg's invention
can do otherwise than sooner or later fall into desuetude
as a means of current interpretation of our mental products
. . . .our grandchildren will no longer trust their works
to this somewhat antiquated process, now become very easy
to replace by -"
was written for Scribner's magazine in 1894, at the end
of the previous century, in enthusiastic response to recent
technological developments. Its author, Octave Uzanne, completed
his prediction with the word "phonography." For him, the reproduction
of sound heralded the end of print mediation between author
"reading . . . soon brings on great weariness," phonography would ease the physical fatigue (from the positions
imposed by reading) and excessive burden on the eyes. Dismissing
concern about the expense and weight of phonographs, he was
confident that they would soon become quite inexpensive and
portable -- suitable for taking a "promenade" using "small cylinders
as light as celluloid penholders, capable of containing five
or six hundred words," (see figure 1). 
only draw-back - the absence of illustration -- would be met
by the simultaneous enjoyment of "Mr. Edison's kinetograph,"
projecting pictures on the living room wall in synchrony with
the phonographic narrative (see figure 2).
did anticipate some attendant social change: "Libraries will
be transformed into phonographotecks," and bibliophiles, who
would become "phonographiles," "will still surround themselves
with rare works ... bound in morocco cases."
Questioned about the elitism of the proposed scheme, Uzanne
saw "the people" served through "fountains of literature in
the streets," wired for casual listening, along with communal
listening in specially wired apartment buildings or train cars
(see figures 3, 4).
the relationship between author and reader was to change. "Readers"
would now be able to hear the voice of the author directly.
The author, having duly copyrighted his voice and narration,
could preserve the benefit of his works for himself, while the
nature of the celebrity-author would change:
of letters will not be called Writers . . . but rather, Narrators.
. . . The art of utterance will take on un-heard-of importance.
. . . The ladies will no longer say in speaking of a successful
author, `What a charming writer!' All shuddering with emotion,
they will sigh, `Ah, how this "Teller's" voice thrills you,
charms you, moves you.' " 
writing today, one might expect words like "orality," "interactivity,"
and "media convergence" to appear, yet the core of his discussion
was a trope on novel machinery and a few of the immediate, first-order
effects of adoption. However, many of the assumptions underlying
his view of the future have been present within later spates of
predictions that the book-as-we-know-it would soon disappear.
Before embarking on discussion of those assumptions, it is worth
examining some of the later waves of - it now seems - premature
obituaries for the bound book.
exuberant futurism came with the earliest awareness of what
has come to be called the Technological Age. A certain fearlessness,
similar to that seen in events like the 1893 World's Exposition,
would soon give way to doubts, in the face of increasing complexity
as mass society employed technology in its pursuits. Just as
society became acquainted with one new medium, another would
come along. Those most directly affected - other than the audience
- found themselves repeatedly challenged to divine what would
happen to their own medium as a new one appeared.
1919 Rupert Hughes, writing for Bookman, discussed another
writer who "viewed with alarm" the theft of children's attention,
as moving pictures lured them away from books. "The child of
today knows more than is good for it. Murder and arson are its
daily food." Equally worried about the
minds of adults, a 1925 publisher saw the public's attention
overwhelmed, to the detriment of books:
I agree with the pessimists that all these things, especially
the overproduction of magazines and newspapers filled with trivial
and cheap contents, injure the book business. Human beings have
only a certain maximum of leisure, and if they
spend an evening reading a sex magazine and listening to the
radio there is no time left for a good book."
had faith that books would yet prevail: "Ultimately, I believe
all of these so-called obstacles will redound to our advantage,
for surely automobiles and radios and movies, yea, even sex magazines,
stimulate the mind, and eventually when the mind is sufficiently
stimulated and in the right direction we have a new book-reader."
the technology of convenience led a journalist to guess that
radio would soon steal print media's thunder. He drew the inference
from an M. I. T. dinner at a New York hotel, at which the first
"radio newspaper" was published. He foresaw an automatic printing
machine in each home, radio-operated and able to offer whole
pages of newspapers instantaneously as news broke. While he did not make the leap to home printing of book pages,
eleven years later another writer was to extrapolate a little
further, this time imagining the precursors of microfilm. Arthur
Train, writing in 1938 for Harper's, predicted that fifty
years hence the "man of 1988" would not only receive his newspaper
via facsimile machine, but he would possess few books, reading
them at home from "tiny reels of film" projected onto the screen
of a "reading machine."
culture was becoming a defining characteristic of American society,
many commentators on the future of books found themselves looking
for a good defense. Richard Mealand, at one time head of the
writing and story department of Paramount Pictures, wrote in
1946 for Publishers Weekly about the relative worth of
books and movies, in a reported argument among a producer, writer,
publisher, and a "sensible looking lady with up-turned horn-rimmed
glasses." She claimed not to get as much out of movies as she
did from a good book, and said she'd "gladly pay three dollars
for a good book" but resented "having to pay more than a dollar
for even the best picture." The producer pronounced her a "reading-woman"
who wouldn't go to movies, anyway. "Some people take to drink,
or dope. Others go to movies. Others listen to the radio.
Others read books. But they're all trying to experience life
without going out and actually experiencing it."
great one-eyed monster lumbered over the horizon and began to
overrun American culture, Saturday Review's august Bennett
Cerf sounded an early alarm in 1948, raising the spectre of
undermined book sales and deterioration of reading:
the end of 1950, . . . the panic will be on in earnest. . .
. Publishers and authors can only hope that they will be able
to get a small cut of the gravy - and that after the novelty
of television has worn off, people again will prefer a good
book, to the spectacle of two unknown prize-fighters staggering
around a ring, or a syrupy-voice huckster proclaiming the virtues
of Dinkelspiel's Deodorant.
By 1950 the
panic was indeed on. Now it wasn't just books but reading itself
that was again feared to be in peril. Life magazine publisher
Andrew Heiskell asked "Have the Newer Media Made Reading Obsolete?"
- specifically addressing the advent of television. No, he said:
"On the contrary, they are all, to a large extent, complementary
rather than mutually exclusive." In his view, the changes in democracy
were demanding increased flow of information to the public, and
creating even better media consumers: "the habitual book reader
also reads more magazines, sees more movies, looks at more newspapers
than non-book readers." He welcomed the newer media as forces
for democratization and as desperately needed competition for
the printed page - whose economics of distribution were, in his
mind, severely antiquated.
even those who believed that television would not entirely eradicate
book reading were still deeply concerned by the changes it might
impose on reading itself. Once again, hands were wrung over
the palpable deterioration in taste, thanks to the vulgarizing
influence of television. But the quality of the reading act
itself began to be scrutinized. Round-tables and symposia about
television and reading sprang up, commonly sponsored by industry
groups such as the American Booksellers Association and the
American Library Association, or by publishing or library trade
publications. One such ABA panelist, educator Florence Brumbaugh,
described the effect of television on her pupils, leading them
to prefer the liveliness of television to the relative passivity
of books: "I believe that the vicarious experiences in the child
today are more real than their first-hand experiences." But
she saw reason for hope so long as booksellers understood
the interactions among media: "Television can interpret books.
Books can interpret television. We faced radio. We faced all
the other mass media, and we think we won because children are
reading more and better than they did in the past."
one of Frederick Melcher's weekly PW commentaries of 1950,
he quoted another optimistic panelist, who noted that "the users
of TV are to a large extent a new market reaching into
homes of many who were never book readers."
But five years later, August Frugé, director of the University
of California Press wrote of continuing gloom in the outlook for
books, his primary grounds for hope residing in cheaper paperback
prices and a marketing effort to make book ownership "fashionable
In a sadly
overlooked Library Quarterly symposium for 1955 devoted
to the future of books, several library professionals looked
at social, historical, and technological aspects of the book.
Though they had the role of libraries and librarians firmly
in sight, they found themselves confronted with the definition
of what a book is, information and communication theory of the
function of books for individuals and society, and the likely
consequences of changes in form and format. They were prepared to imagine a bookless information age,
but they wanted to know why and how that would come about.
perhaps the mid-century's most well-rounded discussion of the
future of books was publisher Dan Lacy's, written in 1957. Lacy's
discussion flowed from his understanding of the media production
and distribution systems, including the profound importance
of audience behavior and preference. Able to envision transmission
of text as "patterns of electrical energy," he nonetheless discounted
wholesale relegation of books to electronics, in part because
he could not foresee the miniaturization permitted by transistors
and microchips, or the efficiency of search-engine programs.
For him, converting the Encyclopedia Britannica entirely
to "coded series of impulses on magnetic wire such as are fed
into electronic brains" had a few catches: the prohibitive cost,
the lengthy and labor-intensive coding effort, difficulties
in retrieving specific pieces
of information, and that "the wire would take up fifteen times
as much shelf space as the printed version."
Lacy believed that economic and audience changes were at least
as important as technological change in determining the future
of book publishing. Distribution, he noted, was intimately connected
to the nature of the entire media system; by implication, changes
in other media would therefore have a great impact on
books. Readership was a function of increased leisure time,
urbanization, and above all higher education, and he wondered
about the impact of the baby-boom and expansion of the "educated
minority" into a possible majority. Would college education
become something different? "Can books be made to serve the
non-bookish?" Like many before and since
concerned about the future of reading, he worried about issues
of attention span, curiosity, and depth.
review is far from exhaustive, and it sidesteps more complete
discussions of reading and the definition of a book. But it
provides illustrations in which three basic thematic - and very
familiar - assumptions seem to be at work.
all, there is the simple but compelling assumption that media
are rivals of each other, competing for a finite amount
of audience resources - time, money, and attention. In this
view, one medium's gain is another's loss; the benefits of one
medium enable it to replace another less convenient or useful;
one medium fixes a problem that another inadequately addresses.
While seemingly over-simple, the idea of mutually exclusive
rivalry still forms the underpinning of more sophisticated arguments,
for example those from ergonomics and cognitive alteration.
Uzanne's Ur-Walkman would replace a book because it was physically
more comfortable and communicationally more immediate - literally
- than a book. Movies are livelier than books, television still
more immediate, and even more distracting are sex magazines.
Once the audience has become consumer of these, therefore, its
attention-span and taste are irrevocably altered
- such that staying with the content of a good book becomes
impossible - thus television-watchers are lost to skilled book-reading.
Later discussions of those such as McLuhan, Meadow, and Birkerts
hinge in part on this view of audience choice, practice, and
until very recently it has been typical of the publishing industry
in particular to conceive of the economics of the media system
in this zero-sum paradigm - at its most extreme believing that
a dollar spent for a movie, a CD, or software is a dollar taken
from the bookseller. Yet Publishers Weekly's industry
stock index for 1998 rose 116.6% (compared to 16.1% for the
Dow-Jones industrials), led of course by distributor Amazon's
321% rise - which in itself says something about the relationship
between books and new media - but also reflecting healthy increases
by publishers Time-Warner, Wiley, McGraw-Hill and Viacom.
of course, undeniable validity to the ideas that audiences do
not "use" two media for precisely the same function and that
audiences will discriminate among media when they spend time
and money. And one must thereby also acknowledge the point that
competition could be "good" if it improves or refines the communication
process. Yet as recently as 1998, when William Mitchell offered
a text simultaneously on-line and in paperback, he was surprised
to find many
using cyberspace to order the paper book. "Why would anyone
buy a copy when the online version was right there at no cost?" He declined to answer his own question, but the answer is
highly relevant to the future of books. History has thus far
shown that no new medium has ever completely replaced an earlier
medium, although some have been profoundly altered from their
relates to the second theme lurking within those early predictions
about the end of books - that of our old friend convergence.
In this perspective, a new medium so affects an existing one
that the two converge to meet all prior purposes and perhaps
a few new ones. As Lester Asheim wrote for the Library Quarterly
in 1955, "it is not too illogical to anticipate that out of
the thesis, book-reading, and its antithesis, the use of nonbook
materials, some synthesis may
come which retains the best features of both."
This assumption can arise out of a certain tunnel-vision found
among technophiles, which assumes that only reason a new medium
has not been completely accepted in preference to an older one
is that science just hasn't yet overcome the problem. Once it
does, the traits and functions of the older medium will be combined
within the newer one - not disappearing but reborn in new and
better form - for example book text on screen.
believed that the main obstacle to communication of text through
sound was the size of batteries and cylinders, not whether the
reader/listener wanted the work read aloud in "real time." One
hears strong echoes in current claims that electronic paper
will make electronic readers no more cumbersome than bound-paper
from convergence has tended to overlook cultural and economic
realities, although there
is an element of convergence in the idea of cross-media taste-contamination.
Even though Uzanne was able to ponder the change in status of
authors with good voices, he could not anticipate radio's dependence
on the automobile for its survival. And cultural attitudes may
be much slower to change than technology: "Only Twinkie-charged
insomniac dweebs like to read on the screen,"
declared one 1992 reader unimpressed by electronic text.
the point, Frugé's view of the book as consumer commodity
brings up a substantial area too often ignored by theorists,
even those occupied by the ergonomics of new media. What the
scientists and theorists may envision as possible, feasible,
let alone desirable for the consumer may have little to do with
what is actually supported by the economy. Thus, the idea that
all household communication devices will eventually be housed
in a single unit, with portable, walk-about satellite stations,
hinges not only on the eventual acceptance by the consumer but
also on industry perceptions of the most lucrative product structure.
The unavailability of consumer CD players that can also record
is indicative of the force of that mindset. With respect
to books, the question may not be whether consumers will continue
to buy them; it may be whether media corporations see books
as a commodity they are committed to selling.
assumption behind many predictions about the future of books
was that of - surprise - complementarity. By dint of specialization
among media functions and interaction of media within an information
and communication system, new media - following a period of
shifting and settling - are thought to take on complementary
functions with respect to other media. Further, they may even
work synergistically to enhance each other's role. In this orientation,
each medium has a set of differentiable purposes or uses; and
a new medium will only take on those functions it can do better
than an existing medium does, leaving some of the original functions
to be performed by the tried and true original medium. Closely
related media may even stimulate use of both - as for example,
the synergistic relationship among movies and television, wherein
television provides both advertising carrier and secondary distribution
- reflected in statements about how television can stimulate
reading and how reading can interpret television - is grounded
in a recognition of the complexities of the media system but
also, perhaps, in an over-optimistic view of the audience's
receptive capacities. While it may be reassuring that a reader
can have Catullus, Swinburne, Carl Hiassen, and Dilbert on the
same shelf above a computer on which they may be read or Mech
Warrior may be played, the challenge is to imagine an infinitely
segmentable media market. Moreover, as Witcoff suggested in
1955, cross-stimulation among media could easily result in a
homogenizing of expectations
on the part of the public, at worst a sort of Gresham's Law
of mutually induced deterioration. And finally, the idea of complementarity presumes a permanence
and orderliness to a media system that has already been demonstrably
disturbed by economic, social and - of course - technological
in identifying these three views of the interaction of old media
with new - rivalry, convergence, and complementarity - was not
to identify any one as having been most persuasive but rather
to note their interwoven existence in the past century's forecasts
about the future of the book. When confronted with a pronouncement
that books may die, one might well look first at the eulogist.
A few have been apologists for the glossy, brand new, improved,
and patentable. But most have either been theoreticians inclined
to follow the trajectory of technology to the furthest imaginable
conclusion, or else those whose professional lives as practitioners
are at stake. Those practitioners - in publishing, librarianship,
bookselling, even education - may well identify grounds for
"doom" or "hope" that may not yet have occurred to theoreticians.
"Market segmentation" was in practice long before the phrase
"interpretive communities" became current. Looking at the technological
possibilities is not the same as identifying corporate priorities,
school board politics, teenagers' habits, or advertisers whims.
Books are, finally, intricately interrelated to the rest of
the media system - economically, socially, intellectually, even
symbolically; and those who have envisioned or feared their
wholesale removal from the system have generally underestimated
that involvement. If one would predict the death of books, it
is necessary to know how they live.
Lester. "New Problems in Plotting the Future of the Book." Library
Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1955): 281-92.
"Radio Steals the Press' Thunder." Independent 119 (9
Jul. 1927): 33-34, 48.
Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic
Age. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994.
Is Not Increasing: A Publisher's View of the Publisher's Problems."
Current Opinion 78 (Mar. 1925): 305.
and TV." Publishers Weekly 157 (17 Jun. 1950): 2638-9.
"Trade Winds," Saturday Review of Literature 31 (5 Jun.
Gregory. "Historical Perspectives on the Book and Information
Technology." Electronic document at Media-in-Transition site,
"Why New Media Won't Kill Books." World Press Review 43
(Jun. 1996): 16-17.
Elizabeth L. "The End of the Book?" American Scholar
64 (Autumn 1995): 541-55.
August. "Books Are Still for Sale." Saturday Review (16
July 1955): 22.
Andrew. "Have the Newer Media Made Reading Obsolete?" Library
Journal 75 (1 Oct. 1050): 1577-78.
Rupert. "Viewing with Alarm." The Bookman 49(May 1919):
Leander. "Microsoft: Paper Is Dead." Wired News (1 Sept.
"Books and the Future: A Speculation." Bowker Lectures on
Book Publishing." New York: R. R. Bowker, 1957.
T. "The End of the Book?" Atlantic Monthly 274 (Sept.
Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New
Gutenberg Galaxy : Making of Typographic Man. Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1962.
Charles T. Ink into Bits: A Web of Converging Media.
Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1998.
"On the Future of the Book, or Does It Have a Future." Journal
of Scholarly Publishing 26 (Apr. 1995): 187-96.
Richard A. "What's Book Got?" Publishers Weekly 150 (9
Nov. 1946): 2716.
Frederick M. "Booksellers Discuss Television and Reading." Publishers
Weekly 157 (10 Jun. 1950): 2561.
William J. "Homer to Home-Page: Designing Digital Books." Electronic
document at "Transformations of the Book," Media-in-Transition
Richard, ed. Visions of Technology. New York: Simon &
Douglas S. "The Information Revolution." Communication Research
Madeleine B. "The First Half-Century of Publishers Weekly 1972-1922."
Publishers Weekly 151 (18 Jan. 1947): 311-13.
Jennifer and Leander Kahney. "E-Books: Read `em and Keep." Wired
News (2 Sept. 1999): http://www.wired.com/news/news/technology/story/21533.html.
Arthur, Jr. "Catching Up with the Inventors," Harper's 176
(Mar. 1938): 363-73.
Octave. "The End of Books." Scribners 16 (Aug. 1894):
Jr. "Developments in Variant Forms of the Book." Library
Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1955): 306-18.
Eliot. "Symposium: Twelve Visions," compiled by Charles Barber..
Media Studies Journal 6(Summer 1992): 41-43.
Howard W. "Historical Perspectives on the Role of the Book in
Society." Library Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1955): 293-305.
Raymond H. "Developments in Mass Communication." Library
Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1955): 319-325.
Octave Uzanne, "The End of Books," Scribners Magazine 16
(Aug. 1894), 224. return
Illustrations for Uzanne's article were by A. Robida. return
Uzanne, 225. return
Uzanne, 226. return
Uzanne, 227. return
Uzanne, 225. return
Rupert Hughes, "Viewing with Alarm," Bookman 49 (May
1919), 263. return
"Book Production Is Not Increasing," Current Opinion
(Mar. 1925), 305. return
Silas Bent, "Radio Steals the Press' Thunder," Independent
119 (9 July 1926), 33. return
Arthur Train, "Catching Up with the Inventors," Harper's
176 (Mar. 1938), 369-70.return
Richard Mealand, "What's a Book Got?" Publishers Weekly
150 (9 Nov. 1946). return
Bennett Cerf, "Trade Winds," Saturday Review 31 (5 Jun.
1948), 6. return
"Books and TV," Publishers Weekly 157 (17 Jun. 1950),
Frederick W. Melcher, Publishers Weekly 157 (10 Jun.
1950), 2561. return
August Frugé, "Books Are Still for Sale," Saturday
Review (16 Jul. 1955), 22. return
See Library Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1995), especially articles
by Lester Asheim, Howard W. Winger, Thompson Webb, and Raymond
H. Wittcoff. return
Dan Lacy, "Books and the Future: A Speculation," Bowker Lectures
on Book Publishing (New York: R. R. Bowker, 1957), 341.
Lacy, 354-56. return
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of
Man (New York: McGraw-Hil1, 1964); and Gutenberg Galaxy
: Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 1962). return
Charles T. Meadow, Ink into Bits: A Web of Converging Media
(Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1998); and "On the Future of the Book,
or Does It Have a Future" (unpublished article, January 1995).
Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading
in an Electronic Age (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994).
William T. Mitchell, "Homer to Home-Page: Designing Digital Books."
Electronic document at "Transformations of the Book," Media-in-Transition
Lester Asheim, "New Problems in Plotting the Future of the Book,"
Library Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1955), 292. return
See for example, Leander Kahney, "Microsoft: Paper Is Dead,"
Wired News (1 Sept. 1999), http://www.wired.com/news/news/technology/story/21499.html;
and Jennifer Sullivan and Leander Kahney, "E-Books: Read `em
and Keep," Wired News (2 Sept. 1999), http://www.wired.com/news/news/technology/story/21533.html.
Eliot Weinberger, "Symposium: Twelve Visions," compiled by Charles
Barber, Media Studies Journal 6(Summer 1992), 41-43.
Raymond H. Wittcoff, "Developments in Mass Communication," Library
Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1955). return